Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Slavery and scars.

Yesterday we looked at the definition of the colonised people by the colonisers thanks to the work of professor Edward Said. Today, I would like to explore another important issue related to the identity issue. First of all, be beware: there is not a real and ultimately valid truth in what we are discussing. Literature, like any other kind of art, cannot be as clearly defined as maths so, if you don’t agree, please take some time to share your views with us!

Slavery. The unspeakable, peculiar institution.

Take for example the Caribbean colonies: when Christopher Columbus arrived, native people were exterminated and when labourers (or, to put it plainly, slaves) were needed, they decided to kidnap African people. This is the beginning of the slave trade known as Atlantic Slave Trade or The Middle Passage, a sad landmark in European, African and American history. It must be highlighted that this kind of slavery differs a lot from the classical practices: this is an economic-motivated slavery where slaves are objectified and a whole discourse on their inferiority tries to justify the situation. As a consequence, slavery is a scar in these societies. Could you forget your great grandparents were slaves because the colour of their skin?

Should the colonisation affect the colonised people’s identity, even in 2011?

For this question, there two opposite answers: either they accept the colonisation as part of their identity or they do not. On the one hand, many experts propose to forget about the colonisation and go back to a previous stage but, the problem is that too many times, that previous stage is idealised. Also, in many cases, it is almost impossible to go back to that stage: how can people from the Caribbean, descendant of removed African peoples go back to their African roots? I’ve chosen this particular case because I have already mentioned Mutabaruka, a rastafarian poet from Jamaica who has changed the Caribbean artistic production. His poems are very rythmical thanks to repetitions (see Prison) and, although simple, they denounce a situation he has never lived: slavery. He still takes it into account and he is still hurt.

Another artists who is still trying to heal her scars is Jamaica Kincaid. I loved her novel Annie John and, it is part of today’s literary recommendations. But, in A Small Place, he criticizes tourists in her homeland, Antigua and how they are perceived by American tourists, or worse, European ones. She tries, angrily, to fight against the stereotype of the charming, destroyed, uncivilized but always sunny and always cheerful place many people consider the Caribbean to be. Please, take some time to see this Malibu add:

Amazingly, this is the image too many educated Western people have from the Caribbean. Do you think it is true? Do you think that their always sunny place is Heaven for them? Have you ever considered if they would like to escape that island and be tourists themselves in exotic places?

This is a quotation from A Small Place that I would like you to read, because it will make you think:

[A]nd so you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.

So, after all these examples, I think I’ve made myself clear. Personally, I don’t think those people should forget about their past when defining themselves in the present. Also, because it is impossible and not practical at all, trying to go back in time to an era that is no longer possible in modern times. As a consequence, literature emerges as a new source of healing (remember slaves were not educated) that allows them to fill a historical gap but also, to express themselves.

Do you think slavery should be taken into account in the present identities of slave-descendants?

Suggested readings:

  1. Mutabaruka Life and Debt (Sang poem)
  2. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John (Book Depository, 7$) – A short novel that explores the life of young Annie John, living in Antigua, as she grows up into a young woman. She has to face some difficulties like any other woman in the world, but they are all tinted by the Caribbean culture. Please, pay special attention to the treatment of a depression she suffers and how it is perceived by her family as a normal stage. No drugs, no nothing. Time heals everything.

I would like to take some time to thanks to the 72 visitors who came yesterday and to those who took time to post a comment.

Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. An introduction.

Reading Jillian’s blog A Room of One’s Own, I noticed that, despite she is reading the great classics of the American and English literature, she had forgotten part of the British Empire and its works: those from the colonies, productions that can be broadly labelled under  postcolonial literature.

She was shocked and asked other readers for their opinion and me, obviously, for an explanation. So, after some talking, we’ve agreed a post would help many readers and, luckily, help them discover another perspective. So, why postcolonial? Why is it interesing? If the canon is the canon, there should be a reason for it, shouldn’t it?

As a consequence, I am proud to inaugurate the first thematic series of posts at BOOKS AND REVIEWS: Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Hope you enjoy and please, let me know any doubts or suggestions you may have. Enjoy!

First of all, a little bit of theory. Postcolonial literature may refer to:

  1. The literary productions during the colonisation of that place.
  2. The literary productions after the colonies gained/were gaining independence, mainly by the native population.

Jill also asked: whose colonies?

It depends very much on the postcolonial field you chose. They are usually gruped by their “owners”. Therefore, we can have English Colonies, French Colonies, Spanish colonies etc. My field is Anglophone postcolonialism: productions from the colonies of the British Empire.

Which colonies?

This is a tricky question: can we consider American literature (until they gained independence in 1776) postcolonial? I would not. There is a key factor in postcolonial studies and it is an economic factor usually linked to slavery and exploitation. If we considered true native Americans texts, that would be another question.

Therefore, postcolonial is usually focused in later English colonies: India, the West Indies (the Caribbean), Africa, Australia, Canada and Ireland among many others.

Who writes postocolonial texts?

Basically, anyone who was living in a colony, an English one in this context. However, the colonisers enjoyed, more or less, the same privileges that they did in England. Meanwhile, there was a body of slaves, indentured workers and native people being caught under their power and their discourse (I will explain this term later on). It is their perspective that interests us because, back then, they were ignored and culturally supressed.

Why do they write those texts?

Well, I may say that we all have a right to an artistic expression but, during the colonisation, natives and slaves were not entitled to any kind of education or free time to express themselves. As a consequence, 21st century century readers face a literary gap: we know what happened in India or Antigua thanks to the colonisers. But, what about the other side of the story?

Here is when postcolonialsm makes an entrance. Although it is more recent than many classical works making reference to the colonies, they offer a response (write back/answer) to nowadays and past social issues: racism, discrimination and the jewel of the crown: slavery.

Why aren’t they part of the canon?

I’m sorry to say, some of them are but remain unknown to most of us., like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. However, it just takes a little bit of critical thought (and I needed an amazing teacher to see this). WHO dominated the Empire? The answer is plain: white men. WHO got published? White men and, sometimes, white women. Who were their target readers? White, educated and middle-class people.

Basically (please, historian, forgive this summary): the world a was the white men’s world. It was their reality and their ideology. Women were inferior, Black people were inferior, Native Americans were inferior… Do I need to keep up the list?


Next, I will explain some basic concepts and I will suggest you  some readings. Since 8th March is the Women’s Day, I will try to come up with two works: one masculine and another feminine. I will have explored them firstly (or at least, heard of them) so I can answer any questions or doubts. Until now, feel free to search the net or visit the following links:

Suggested reading:

  1. History:

2. Postcolonial Theory:

3. Literary suggestion: (easly and light, please do not panic!)

  • Mutabaruka’s poem Prison and my analysis can be found here. While reading, please consider: what means prison for you? Just being in jail? A hint: for the poet, a prison is not a physical place but a situtation.

Thanks to all of you who have shown interest!

I hope you comment with your thoughts, any doubts or feelings about postcolonialism, I am here to help you! Huge thanks to Jillian too for making a post out of my response.

*The Book Depository offers free global shipping, so, if you are interested, you may like this over Amazon or any other shipping-fee sites. I give my word, they are 100% realiable.

Poem: Prison by Mutabaruka

It has just been published that Mubarak has renounced. So, in honour of those who have fought for the liberty of the whole country:

Prisoner by: Mutabaruka

You ask me if I have ever been to prison
Been to Prison?
Your world of murderer’s and thieves
Of hatred and jealousy of death
And you ask me if I have ever been to prison
I answer, Yes
I am still there trying to escape.

I don’t usually like poetry, but this is one of my favourite pieces. It is simple, direct and yet it describes the struggle of many people against an oppresive power.

Mutabaruka is a Rastafarian, social poet belonging to the tradition of Postcolonial studies in Literature, more specifically he is a West Indian poet: from the Anglophone Caribbean. Because of his Rastafarian background, he pleads for a return to the African roots of the black population in the Caribbean islands since the natives were exterminated during the colonisation. A key element is music and, as a consequence, his poems are very rhythmic, an effect achieved in this one by the repetition of “been to prison.”

But I would like to focus on the message of the poem. The poetic voice is answering back to someone who has asked him “have you ever been to prison?”. This implies the addressee considers the poetic voice an inferior, someone with a dubious reputation and probably a criminal. So, in such a short sentence, there a whole system (and the consequent struggle) are described: colonialism also means slavery, a superior vs. inferior relationship and, more importantly a concept of otherness. Colonial subjects were what colonisers were not, so, to put it simply, ignorant savages. There was then, a linguistic prison containing a discourse of inferiority for the descendants of African slaves and, sadly such boundaries still exist.

There are words and behaviours that imprison people and stereotype them. But luckily, there are people out there fighting for freedom. This is why I love this poem so much: because it wrings awareness, it reminds us of invisible but powerful limits and injustices we still have to fight.